David Kieran teaching a seminar class

Student research project culminates in “Dynamic Decades” exhibit, reveals College and community history

Created: May 4, 2022  |  Last Updated: May 31, 2022  |  Category:   |  Tagged: , , , , , , , ,

WASHINGTON, PA (May 4, 2022)—A year-long research project conducted by Washington & Jefferson College students, faculty, and staff will be on display this week when the exhibit Dynamic Decades: W&J and the City of Washington in the Midst of Social Change opens May 5 on the first floor of Clark Family Library.

Funded by a Council of Independent Colleges Public Humanities for the Greater Good grant, and in partnership with the Washington County chapter of the NAACP, students in the course “Public History Design and Exhibition: Race and the College” (HIS 372) spent the Fall 2021 semester researching historical aspects of W&J College and of the Washington community, and the role these have played in the larger societal pursuit of racial equity and justice.

They were joined in the Spring 2022 semester by students in “Introduction to Public History” (HIS 272), where students learned to design and install museum exhibits. A team from the communication information studies (CIS) capstone course, “Service Learning and Project Management” (CIS 400), collaborated with the History students to build a companion website.

The fall course was led by Associate Professor of History and Chair of the History Department Dr. David Kieran, and assisted by former W&J Archivist Kelly Helm and Instructional Technologist Samantha Martin. Research was conducted by seniors Kinsley Bitzer, Sarah Byrne, Jakerra Lance, Cole Leathers, and E.J. Thompson; juniors Samantha Casile, Anastasia Giampa, Jeremy Shellhammer, and Victoria Wilson; sophomore Harley Pflugh; and first-year students Madison Buscemi, Tekoah Henry, Mason Kasprack, Kaela Persons, Zachary Valentine, and Shane Young.

The exhibit the class created includes the 1781 Washington County Slave Register, the syllabus and books for the first African American literature course offered at the College, and the robe and gavel (on loan from the Heinz History Center) of the first African American Federal Judge in Southwestern Pennsylvania, who was from Washington County. It also tells the story of their research findings, which reveal a complicated past of oppression, resistance, pride, and progress.

“The College has a complex history on matters of race and racial progress,” Kieran said. “We’ve seen many ways in which the people in the College and community have been at the front of the pursuit of racial justice. At the same time, there have been some moments that were more troubling.”

Some of those moments are evident from W&J’s founding in the late 1700s; some donors recognized for making early or founding gifts to the College were slaveholders. Through the centuries, there are records of minstrel shows and mock conventions (racialized performances that utilize black face and racial stereotyping) serving as popular forms of student entertainment, and accounts of racial exclusion in academia and, later, Greek Life.

These moments extended to and grew out of the surrounding community.

In the 1960s, some Washington, Pa. department stores prohibited Black patrons from trying on clothes and forced them to purchase whatever they appraised. And in 1990, the Klu Klux Klan organized a convention in Claysville—just 10 miles from Washington.

But there are many bright spots in this history too.

W&J began admitting Black students as early as 1830, with Martin Delany, an abolitionist, journalist, physician, and soldier, attending the school as a non-matriculated student in the early 19th century. Welcome Turner Jones is the first known Black graduate of W&J, graduating in 1890. Jones, a physician, writer, poet, and instrumentalist, went on to attend Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine and found the Whittaker Memorial Hospital in Newport News, Va.

Additionally, members of the campus and community rallied against the showing and filming of racist cinema like “Birth of a Nation” and “Free and Equal” in Washington. The local chapter of the NAACP protested the department stores that discriminated against them and marched against the KKK’s presence. Faculty at W&J created courses the focused in the African American experience. And students worked to establish the Black Student Union and started standing up to the racism around them.

“We had students who were very active in the civil rights movement,” said Casile, a history major who focused her research on the timeframe of 1950-1980. “We had students who were very open about the exclusion that was occurring in Greek Life at the time. And we had students who were very open about condemning the racist acts of fellow students.”

Faculty and staff took action as well.

Dr. Scott McCormick, an associate professor of religion in the 1960s and 1970s, led students to the Washington County Courthouse and recited Martin Luther King Jr.’s, “I have a dream” speech after the assassination of the civil rights leader, and College leaders brought Alex Haley, the author of Roots (an iconic novel which tells the tale of ancestral history and slavery), to speak in the 1970s.

But the work toward racial equality is ongoing, and that’s exactly why Kieran posed this project to his students.

“The moment in which we find ourselves is one in which grappling with that history is crucial,” he said. “Our country is engaged in a reckoning with race, and we wanted students to place current issues in a broader, historical context and to create something that would be a benefit to the community—to help the community think through contemporary issues, while being mindful of the larger history of which they are a part.”

Casile is convinced this exhibit will do just that.

“I think this is what we need,” she said. “Obviously, Black liberation and Black advocacy has been around for decades, but the way that technology has been used in the Black Lives Matter movement has allowed us to visualize more, a minority experience. And I think putting this exhibit on a campus that is predominately white will really help students visualize this in an educational way.”

For additional information on W&J’s history of racial inclusion, see the following:

About Washington & Jefferson College

Washington & Jefferson College, proudly located in Washington, Pa., is a historic liberal arts college founded in 1781 that values ethical leadership, professional readiness, and inclusive communities. Our highly customized and intellectually engaging student experience develops professionals of uncommon integrity to lead in an ever-changing world. For more information about W&J, visit www.washjeff.edu or call 888-W-AND-J.